Hearing is Believing; Listening to Autism

By: J.C. Mitchell


It is impossible to be in someone else’s head, yet many people try.  People ponder motive and intention as if they can truly know what one is thinking.  It is often a cause of conflict between people and groups, because the perceived intention or motive is a reality to one, and all parties contribute to the confusion and delay, as they would say on the Island of Sodor, where Thomas the Tank Engine resides; bet you didn’t expect me to go there, but that is my point: people assume more than listen. 

All of this gets complicated for those on the Autism Spectrum, and thus I was intrigued by Jessi Cash’s Blog Post, “When I Overheard a Conversation Between My Son With Autism and His Brother”.  She was privileged to overhearing one son ask her other son, “…what is it like being you?” and the resulting conversation was very interesting and helpful.  So much so I will wait till you read it to go on….

Now you know why I referred to Thomas.   I would love to ask this question to my son; however, he is still struggling with communication.  Currently my son’s communication is limited to grunts, hand pulling, and his communication device, with an occasional verbal word; most, however, are a result of parroting or echolalia (scripting).  So if I asked my son such a complex question I would not at this time engage in an answer that would provide such insights, like that gleaned from the conversation recorded above.  

Nonetheless, yesterday as I was driving the car and searching for a radio station, I stopped on a song, for lack of anything better, and stayed on this unknown song.  It was in French, and sure enough I had stumbled on a French Canadian Channel.  The song was simply the opening for a talk show, and I kept on the channel since I was only minutes from home.  Having studied French in high school, and was even president of the French Language Club, I know some of the language.  I can usually understand simple conversations, and I will proudly tell you that I often confused those who are francophones when I worked at Les Trois Petits Chochons, but I couldn’t keep up the charade beyond basic orders and issues, and had to admit I was not fluent. 

So I listened to the conversation on the radio, and at times I knew what they were talking about; the weather, and a movie, but overall it was all a foreign language to me.   I could simply note when they were excited or reflective, but not what the subject was.  That is when I realized that this must be similar to what my son experiences.  He understands what we are saying in specific contexts and specific words, most of the same words I know in French (yes, no, ball, animals, colors, etc). 

I share this simple observation, because for that 10 minutes of listening to the program, I realized how frustrating it must be to hear the conversation, but not understand it, I too found myself wanting to the change the channel, but that is not possible for him.  He certainly understands more than he communicates, and this epiphany of empathy is essential for us all to attempt, even knowing the answer to “what is it like being you?”